Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible, Chapters 1 & 2
It is necessary to understand three concepts in order to understand Smith’s argument in this book: 1) biblicism, 2) pervasive interpretive pluralism, and 3) impossible. There may be others, but these are necessary and sufficient for now.
The gist of Smith’s argument in this book is that biblicism, as he defines it, literally makes it impossible for the Bible to function as the church’s sole, ultimate authority for faith and practice because it leads inevitably and always to pervasive interpretive pluralism (henceforth PIP)—the situation in which there are multiple, competing interpretations of the Bible on crucial matters of Christian faith and life and there is no way to adjudicate them simply by appeal to the Bible.
Of course, anyone who knows even a modicum of church history and historical theology will recognize right away that this has been the argument of some Christians about the Protestant principle of sola scriptura (or even prima scriptura) for a long time. Most notably, but not uniquely, Catholics have made this argument ever since the Reformation.
After writing this book, Smith joined the Roman Catholic Church, but in the book itself he does not advocate that as the one and only solution to PIP. Rather, he offers some pointers to possible ways of softening the problem. I’ll get to those later.
First, what does Smith mean by “biblicism?” That’s a word with multiple meanings and uses, of course, so it’s important to know what Smith means by it. And it’s important to know that he thinks his definition of it is common to most conservative evangelicals (and possibly others). By “biblicism” Smith means “a constellation of related assumptions and beliefs about the Bible’s nature, purpose, and function…represented by ten assumptions or beliefs.” (4)
These ten assumptions or beliefs that, according to Smith, make up biblicism are: divine writing, total representation, complete coverage, democratic perspicuity, commonsense hermeneutics, solo scriptura, internal harmony, universal applicability, inductive method and handbook model. (4-5) The ways in which he defines these beliefs leads me to believe he is talking primarily about fundamentalism, but he labels the religious party that he thinks adheres to this constellation of beliefs about the Bible “conservative American Protestantism, especially evangelicalism.” (5)
One question that immediately arises, of course, is whether Smith has here created a straw man, labeled it “biblicism” and made it easy to destroy it. Another way of asking that question is whether Smith’s “biblicism” is really held by the majority of educated conservative evangelicals. Throughout the book Smith attributes this biblicism to a number of conservative evangelical preachers, teachers, authors and to the grassroots of conservative evangelicalism. In Chapter 1 he gives as a prime example popular evangelical pastor and author John F. MacArthur, Jr. (7). But he also regards many mainline evangelical denominations’ and organizations’ statements of faith as reflecting this biblicism.
I think Smith means that this view of the Bible is IMPLIED, if not explicitly stated, by the thinks the vast majority of evangelicals say about the Bible and how they tend to use it even if they sometimes qualify it out of necessity.
So, can we sum up “biblicism” as Smith means it in a few words? I’ll take a stab at it. It is the view that the Bible is verbally inspired such that the words written by the human authors are God’s own chosen words, it is inerrant in everything it teaches—including matters of history, cosmology, etc., it is absolutely harmonious in its teachings, it is perspicuous such that any relatively reasonable person can understand it, and it covers everything any person needs to know to live a fulfilled life pleasing to God. This last point is what Smith means by “Handbook Model.” (5)
For those of you who have read the first chapter, I wonder if Smith mixes together or confuses scholarly evangelical biblicism with folk religious biblicism? Would conservative evangelical biblical scholars and theologians who agree with most of what he calls biblicism agree that the Bible is “a compendium of divine and therefore inerrant teachings on a full array of subjects—including science, economics, health, politics, and romance?” (5) Might it be possible to be a biblicist even by his standards without embracing that “Handbook Model?” I think perhaps so and, later in the book, Smith himself seems to work with this distinction. One can certainly believe the first nine points of the constellation without embracing the tenth. I think most educated biblicists would argue that the Bible provides divine guidance about these matters without providing “teachings” about them.
When Smith provides popular, institutional and scholarly examples of biblicism things get a bit murky. I’m not sure all the people and institutions he mentions really adhere to all ten points of his biblicism in the way he suggests. In this chapter, anyway, he rarely mentions individual evangelical scholars; instead he mentions and quotes from an array of conservative evangelical statements of faith as they touch on the Bible. I’m not sure all ten points of Smith’s biblicism can be found in all those statements of faith, but he would surely argue they are implied there. (Admittedly, however, SOME of the evangelical statements of faith about the Bible he quotes are shockingly naïve about the Bible. I suspect even most conservative evangelical scholars would have trouble working under them.)
So what does Smith mean by PIP? Simply put, he means that equally sincere, educated, spiritual biblical interpreters cannot come to agreement about crucial biblical teachings. Smith assumes that IF the Bible is what biblicists say it is, they should be able to. This seems right ASSUMING that “perspicuity” means what he says it means (as applied to Scripture). Here is what Smith says it means: “Any reasonably intelligent person can read the Bible in his or her own language and correctly understand the plain meaning of the text.” (4) I agree that most evangelicals believe this about CRUCIAL matters pertaining to salvation, but I’m not sure ANY educated evangelical or even fundamentalist thinks this about EVERY matter about which the Bible speaks. Else why do we have colleges, universities and seminaries with programs devoted to educating already reasonable people in interpreting the Bible? Perhaps there is sometimes a disconnect between what evangelicals SAY about the Bible and how they BEHAVE with regard to it. I think that is often so.
Let’s agree with Smith that PIP exists even among equally sincere, equally intelligent, equally spiritual conservative evangelicals. I think that’s safe to assume. Who can doubt that “The very same Bible—which biblicists insist is perspicuous and harmonious—gives rise to divergent understandings among intelligent, sincere, committed readers about what it says about most topics of interest?” (17) But notice that Smith says “most topics of interest.” Later it becomes clear that he thinks this is true of ALL topics of interest—that evangelicals so described diverge dramatically on virtually EVERYTHING taught in the Bible. Is that so? Don’t most, if not all, evangelicals agree on the several statements of the National Association of Evangelicals Statement of Faith? (You can look it up on line.) I think they do. So is Smith making a mountain of disagreement out of a molehill of disagreement? It depends, I guess, on what you think is “crucial” among the “topics of interest.”
But Smith would simply respond, I suppose, by pointing out the minimal nature of the few articles of belief evangelicals agree on. And he would no doubt point out that they interpret them differently. For example, we all agree that God exists, but we debate endlessly God’s nature and attributes. Smith might say the devil (of PIP) is in the details—even of the few beliefs evangelicals claim to agree about. I’ll grant him that while reserving the right to think the consensus is greater than he suggests.
Clearly Smith is bothered by PIP among Christians and especially evangelicals. (I wonder if joining the Catholic Church is going to solve that problem for him? In spite of the authoritative magisterium there’s lots of interpretive pluralism among Catholics including Catholic biblical scholars and theologians.) I’m not as bothered by it as he is. Perhaps that’s because I’m a Pietist. Later in the book Smith ridicules the Pietist saying “In essential unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity” because the doesn’t think there IS unity in essentials among evangelicals. I think there is—at least on the few doctrines I claim as essentials. And different interpretations of them and the non-essentials doesn’t trouble me as much as it apparently does Smith. John Wesley famously said “If your heart is as mine is, give me your hand.” Of course, many dogmatists have ridiculed Wesley for saying that, but I find it generous and accurate to the spirit of authentic Christianity which should be tolerant of differing interpretations on many things. (Surely Wesley did NOT mean “give me your hand even if you don’t believe in the deity of Jesus Christ or in salvation by grace alone or the bodily resurrection of Jesus or his miracles.) I don’t see why we can’t just agree to disagree about the non-essentials and not get all hot and bothered about that.
Smith states that evangelicals DO NOT agree on the essentials—either on what they mean or what they are. (24) Smith closes Chapter 1 with this ominous (to him) claim: “If the Bible is all that biblicism claims it to be, then Christians—especially those who share biblicists beliefs—ought to be able to come to a solid consensus about what it teaches, at least on most matters of importance. But they do not and apparently cannot. Quite the contrary, Christians, perhaps especially biblicist Christians, are ‘all over the map’ on what the Bible teaches about most issues, topics, and questions. In this way, the actual functional outcome of the biblicist view of scripture belies biblicism’s theoretical claims about the Bible. Something is wrong in the biblicist picture that cannot be ignored.” (26)
For example: The United States Constitution is regarded by most Americans and certainly by jurists to be in itself authoritative and perspicuous and harmonious within itself, etc. And yet PIP has always marked American jurisprudence. Does PIP in that context make the Constitution NOT what we believe it is—the sole, supreme authority for settling matters of law and policy in our country? Would Smith say that? PIP with regard to the Constitution does not arise from any flaw in the Constitution; it arises from finite and biased interpretations of it. To be sure, the Constitution is not clear about everything, and that causes some of the PIP about it, but nobody says throw it out because of that. We learn to live with PIP and muddle through our disagreements about its meaning and application.
Of course the analogy breaks down, but I would argue it doesn’t break down on the ONE POINT I’m making here—that just because a document gives rise to different interpretations does not mean it is not solely, supremely authoritative with regard to everything related to its subject matter. I agree that the Bible is not as clear as we would like it to be, but I think that’s only a problem when we try to make it answer questions it doesn’t answer. (The same would be true of the Constitution.) On crucial matters that pertain to its main subject matter (e.g., the character of God) it is quite clear. That others disagree with my interpretation doesn’t drive me to distraction. I just think they are biased. They think I am. So long as we can worship and witness and cooperate together for the kingdom of God I’m not particularly dismayed.
Still, I feel the force of Smith’s point, even if not as strongly as he would like me to. PIP is a problem among evangelicals WHEN it leads to breaking of fellowship. And all too often it does lead there. (For example, I once attended a conference of mostly Calvinists—long before I wrote Against Calvinism or even conceived of it! I was the lone Arminian there, so far as I could tell. The Calvinists, some who claimed to be my friends, quite blatantly NEVER invited me to sit with them at a meal, nor did any of them sit with me or others who were not as committed to Calvinism as they are. And throughout the conference there were no public prayers or worship of any kind. I could only conclude they did not think it right to worship, pray or even have table fellowship with people who claimed to be Christians but disagree with their view of God’s sovereignty in salvation.) When I run up against PIP among equally sincere, spiritual, committed evangelical Christians, my first instinct is curiosity rather than dismay. And I may chalk it up to lack of clarity of Scripture, but I never chalk it up to any real defect in Scripture or even in those who interpret it differently (except, as I said before, if it’s on a matter crucial to salvation).
Having said all that, I have to say I agree with Smith that biblicism AS HE DEFINES AND DESCRIBES it is a problem; it is simply untenable. Scripture isn’t that—especially not a “handbook” of answers to all of life’s questions. (See my book Questions to All Your Answers [Zondervan] that includes a chapter on this subject of the Bible containing answers to all of life’s questions—something I equate with folk religion.)
Chapter 2 is entitled “The Extent and Source of Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism.” Smith runs through a laundry list of areas of Christian belief and practice where evangelicals strongly diverge while equally claiming that the Bible is clear. That is, all sides of these controversies among evangelicals claim the Bible truly settles the matter in their favor. This bothers Smith greatly. They include church polity, free will and predestination, Sabbath keeping, the morality of slavery (in the past), gender difference and equality, wealth, prosperity, poverty and blessing, war, peace and nonviolence, charismatic gifts, etc.
After discussing these controversies in some detail he concludes that “Evangelical biblicists are highly divergent from one another on many scriptural and theological issues and in their consequential cultural and institutional manifestations.” (36) Who could argue with that? But is it the Bible’s fault? Of course, Smith would say no—it is the fault of biblicism. But Smith SEEMS to be claiming (throughout the book) that the Bible speaks with multiple voices on many important doctrinal issues—that there really IS NO UNITY within the Bible, even when “progressive revelation” is taken into account. I’m not quite so eager to say that. I certainly admit that on many issues the Bible is either silent or unclear, but I’m not yet ready to say it speaks with multiple voices on any matter relating to salvation. That raises the question of the importance status of the issues Smith uses to disprove biblicism. Are any of them crucial to salvation or even to being a Christian? I would say not. But, of course, there are always SOME evangelicals who will claim their own pet doctrine, with which most evangelicals disagree, is crucial to being authentically Christian. Does that prove PIP or the crisis Smith claims? I’m not so sure.
HOW COULD THERE EVER BE A SOLUTION TO PIP OF THAT KIND? Isn’t it natural that SOME evangelicals (and others) will inflate some pet doctrine to a status of importance out of all proportion to it? I think so. I don’t see how that can be avoided. Does it prove anything other than that some evangelicals are fanatics and ought to be corrected by the majority and possibly shunned if they keep insisting their pet doctrine is crucial when it isn’t even a matter of historic orthodoxy let alone crucial to salvation? For example, in 1919 fundamentalist leader William Bell Riley added premillennialism to the list of “fundamentals of the faith.” Many fundamentalists embraced that move. But, over time, the vast majority of evangelicals said no to that. Sure, evangelicals disagree about the millennium; does that prove anything except that the Bible isn’t as clear as we’d like it to be and we ought to hold our beliefs about it lightly? Does the fact that the Bible isn’t as clear as we wish about that mean it isn’t perfectly clear about the deity of Jesus Christ or the resurrection or salvation through the cross? Does the fact that some people who call themselves Christians even disagree with all evangelicals about those doctrines (e.g., Jehovah’s Witnesses) mean the Bible ISN’T clear about them? I don’t think so.
Much of Chapter 2 is taken up with Smith’s discussion and rejection of six “possible biblicist replies” to his charge that biblicism makes the Bible impossible. I won’t go through them here. Some of them are simply ridiculous (e.g., that demons confuse people’s minds so that the clear meaning of Scripture is distorted) IF we’re talking about disagreements among evangelicals. IF I were a biblicist (which I’m not in Smith’s meaning of the term) I might pose a reply that I don’t think he considers. It is simply that ALL documents are open to interpretation and we should simply come to terms with that and consider it a result of our finiteness and fallenness and the inevitable ambiguity of documents BECAUSE of our distance from them and our limitations. This might sound like his first possible biblicist reply, but I think it is different. His first one is “blame-the-deficient-readers answer.” But he explains it as saying that all but one interpretation is simply wrong-headed and some people are wrong-headed (i.e., biased, confused, etc.). My proposed answer isn’t that. It is rather than the Bible is a historical document and, though verbally inspired, harmonious and perspicuous in and of itself, due to our distance from it and our human limitations of finitude and fallenness we will never come to full agreement about everything it teaches and should come to terms with that while striving to arrive at as much consensus as possible.
Note that nowhere in the book does Smith claim the Bible is ambiguous about the most important matters of salvation or even of basic Christian conduct. HE SEEMS TO BELIEVE with regard to subjects such as the deity and humanity of Christ, the resurrection, basic morality (e.g., you’re not permitted to have sex with just anyone because you want to), etc., that the Bible IS clear. What troubles him are the numerous topics of interest to evangelical Christians where it is not perfectly clear. That simply doesn’t bother me as much as it does him and I’m not as inclined as he is to blame it on the Bible even though I am ready to admit that the Bible is not as clear as we would like it to be on these secondary matters. But I think that over time some of these issues do become clear. For example, one of the subjects he uses to illustrate PIP is slavery. But wait! Christians HAVE come to consensus about that even though the Bible really ISN’T perfectly clear about it. So there’s hope for eventual agreement on these matters IF evangelicals persist in having dialogue about them. Over time more light will perhaps shine through Scripture and settle the issue in our minds.
The final section of Chapter 2 is “The Reality of Multivocality” (in the Bible). Here is one way he expresses it: “the Bible is multivocal in its plausible interpretive possibilities: it can and does speak to different listeners in different voices that appear to say different things. … This means that the Bible often confronts the reader with ‘semantic indeterminacy’.” (47) Interestingly, he quotes or refers to several conservative (or at least relatively conservative) evangelical scholars to support this. So who is it that denies it? Well, of course, fundamentalists. And, I would say, most of today’s “conservative evangelicals” who are really fundamentalists with manners (sometimes). (These are the people I call neo-fundamentalists.) I suspect that ALL of the evangelical scholars he quotes to support his view of the Bible’s multivocality consider themselves in some sense “biblicists,” just not in the very narrow sense Smith uses.
Smith ends Chapter 2 with this startling thesis: “To deny the multivocality of scripture is to live in a self-constructed world of unreality. Yet scriptural multivocality is a fact that profoundly challenges evangelical biblicism. It must be overcome or transcended, or biblicism is at least partly mistaken and needs revising.” (54) Agreed. Biblicism AS SMITH DEFINES IT needs revising. And many evangelicals, including some who would still gladly wear the label “biblicist,” have revised it or never adopted it.
One thing I am objecting to is Smith SEEMING equation of “evangelical” with “biblicist” IN HIS SENSE OF BIBLICISM. I know many evangelical scholars and some evangelical lay people (such as my brother who has no formal theological training) who have NEVER believed in biblicism in Smith’s sense. ALL OR MOST OF THEM would deny that Scripture speaks with many voices on matters pertaining to basic Christian orthodoxy. In other words, just because there are people who deny the deity of Christ does not require acknowledgement of PIP about the basic of Christology or the claim that the Bible speaks with many voices about this matter. Most non-fundamentalist evangelicals, however, would readily admit that the Bible at least SEEMS (as Smith says) to speak with several voices about SOME matters (e.g., women’s status in the church). Their explanations of this differ, no doubt, but few of them claim it speaks clearly, unambiguously, and univocally about this and other secondary matters about which we must use our best Scripture- and Spirit-guided judgment. One possible explanation of this situation is that PERHAPS God had his own reasons for leaving some matters unclear.
For example, I once heard a Baptist preacher say that the Bible is unclear about the issue of eternal security for a reason. If God told us unequivocally that our salvation can be lost, many (most?) Christians would live in fear and possibly despair. But if God told us unequivocally that our salvation cannot be lost, many (most?) Christians would use that as license to sin. So God purposely left traces of both truths in Scripture—none of which are so unambiguous that they amount to deception. One set of traces urges caution; the other urges confidence. The two do not actually contradict each other, but people intent on having clear, set doctrines about everything tend to interpret one set of traces through the other one and lose the intended balance.
In that case (the illustration immediately above) one could say that Scriptures speaks with two voices on this issue without claiming that the Bible is at fault in the sense of not being a sufficient source and norm of Christian belief and life.
In sum, then, up to here (through Chapter 2) I am not as troubled by PIP as Smith is and I do not think we need to resort to claims that the Bible is incoherent about crucial matters pertaining to salvation because of it. However, I agree with Smith that biblicism AS HE DEFINES IT is impossible and unnecessary.
Next…Chapters 3 & 4.